Superheroes & Social Justice: How Megafranchises Diversified the Blockbuster

On Friday November 20th, Netflix released the entire first series of a new TV show, Jessica Jones. The main character of Jessica Jones is naturally a woman named Jessica Jones, a private detective with superhero powers who is coming to terms with a stressful ordeal she experienced shortly before we meet her. Her nemesis is an abusive former lover who can control the minds of others to make them do anything he wants, which is how he managed to form a relationship with her in the first place. She is therefore a rape victim, and sees it as her duty to stop the man from doing the same to anyone else. Since the man can control minds, she has trouble with society actually believing that he exists or did anything wrong, so the rape metaphor continues, and the main plot of the series is how Jessica can prove his existence and somehow stop him. Jessica is helped by her foster-sister, her black lover Luke Cage, and her lesbian lawyer (Trinity from the Matrix). Jessica Jones therefore is a superhero story covering a very female storyline, led by women, and featuring further social minorities in the supporting cast. Further to the point, things do not go well for any white man that appears in the show. This makes Jessica Jones sound like the fan fiction of a Tumblr Social Justice Warrior, but it is important to remember that the show is actually a big budget, highly glossed superhero story. What is more important is that it is the TV expansion of a megafranchise,.

Yes, Jessica Jones is part of the megafranchise known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which includes all of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, as well the individual movies of Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and the like. Jessica exists in the same world as all those guys, and rumour has it she may meet them at some stage in the future (to talk about diversity in the Avengers, I guess). More specifically, Jessica Jones is part of a side project of the Marvel Megafranchise which focuses on street level crime in New York City. It started in April this year with Daredevil, followed by the recent Jessica Jones, next spring it continues with a Luke Cage series, then a few months later another hero (Iron Fist) gets a series. Once these four series have concluded, all four of these protagonists join together for a miniseries called The Defenders, and these guys will probably then move from TV to the movies to join up with the Avengers. So while the Jessica Jones series that was just released in November does tell a single story, the show itself is merely a cog in a giant machine that will be spewing out similar interlinked content for years to come, with little risk, as it is just part of a massively diversified Marvel portfolio. Therefore Jessica Jones could afford to take chances in its storytelling and character diversification that not many similar standalone big budget TV show possibly could. While Jessica Jones is not a movie blockbuster, it is blockbuster TV, and exists solely because of the acquired and future capital of the Marvel Megafranchise, and it is worth looking at how it and the other megafranchises are using their considerable power to promote diversity in mainstream media.

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I started thinking about this while one eye was on the TV, where Jessica Jones and Luke Cage shared a lover’s embrace, and my other eye was on my laptop, as I watched the newly released trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I risk accusations of both racism and sexism, but the fact is that they both feature love stories between a white woman and a black man. The Star Wars Megafranchise kicks off in a few weeks, and it has diversity written all over it. While characters from the old movies do appear, the main storyline focuses on new characters, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (David Boyega). Star Wars is therefore showing it has moved on from the original trilogy, which featured two women (in fairness, both held leadership positions), and one black man (again, in fairness it was Billy Dee Williams, the coolest black man around at the time) in the course of three movies. The prequel trilogy had more women (although most seemed to be pretending to be Natalie Portman), and one more black man (again, they went for the coolest black man around at the time: Samuel L. Jackson). It is commendable that the makers of the new Star Wars movies decided to correct these perceived wrongs, and they will go further next year when they release their first spinoff, Star Wars: Rogue One, which has a woman as the main character.

The Star Wars Megafranchise therefore has not even started yet, and is already shunning the traditional route of casting young handsome white men as the lead characters in the movies. The same cannot be said of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), despite its recent Jessica Jones social justice crusade. The MCU started in 2008, and still, after 12 movies, has yet to have a single movie about anything other than a white man (or superhero teams led by white men). Scarlett Johanssen has been in the background of a number of these films, as has the coolest black man available at the time (yep, Samuel L. Jackson again), but these characters merely served as bridges through the multiple movies rather than having real stories of their own. This is about to change when Marvel get around to releasing a Black Panther movie in 2018, about an African king who can harness the power of nature. In 2017 they will release a movie about a female superhero, Captain Marvel. So it will have taken them almost a decade to release a movie about about anything other than a super-powered white man. Jessica Jones can be seen as a way to achieve forgiveness for this, as well as a testing ground for what kind of female-centric stories that audiences will tolerate.

Finally, the last of the three main megafranchises, the DC Extended Universe, kicks off next year with Batman v Superman and was envisaged from the outset to produce a Wonder Woman movie as quickly as possible. This turns out to be in summer 2017, and they have already started producing their black superhero movie, Cyborg, which is released in 2020.

So, taking the output of all three megafranchises into account, there are five blockbuster movies coming out in the next five years that focus on superheroes other than white men. Add to this the Netflix TV shows, and you can see that there is definitely a trend emerging. While social equality has always been around in some shape or form, the past two years have seen a palpable change in attitudes towards such things as the gender pay gap, as there has been a persistent effort to keep this inequality in the limelight, to entrench it in the imagination to the extent that it becomes more than just a fleeting “cause of the day”. Hollywood blockbusters are not known for their diversity, and the Hollywood system of movie making is extremely conservative: spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie means that movie studios rarely will take chances, and stick instead to formulas, and characters, that have worked in the past.

The emergence of megafranchises within the studio system has changed this game a little, and there is room to take chances. Since the megafranchises entail a large series of interconnected but independent parts, no longer can the future of a franchise be put in jeopardy by a single bad movie in the series. If the next Captain America movie is terrible, this is irrelevant to the future of the other Avengers movies. Therefore in the individual movies that appear in-between the big group movies, it is definitely possible to tell stories that would be deemed financially risky by conservative investors if the movies were not part of such a grand, diversified portfolio that the megafranchises consist of. I am not implying that movies about black superheroes are funded due to Hollywood movie studios promoting diversity, but that they are far less risky under the protection of the megafranchise umbrella, and that the movie studios can therefore fund a $200m Wonder Woman movie and be impressed if it succeeds, but not too worried if it fails. In my least cynical terms: the megafranchises are giving diversity a chance, in as risk-averse a setting as possible in Hollywood. In my most cynical terms: the megafranchises don’t care about diversity, they just want to see if they can make money from it.

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They will definitely make money from all of the movies I have mentioned, but the real issue is what happens next: when the megafranchise umbrella is removed, will we be seeing anything other than white men leading other big movies? Well, I’ve told you already: Hollywood sees these superhero movies about women and black men as tests to see if such movies can make money, so it really depends on how successful movies like Captain Marvel and Black Panther are at the box office. Hollywood is not a social justice warrior, it’s a business: it knows that movies with handsome white men can make money, and therefore it favours these movies. In turn, movie writers know that movie studios like movies about white men, and therefore their screenplays will start from this building block. It’s a circle that can only be broken if a viable alternative is demonstrated to be successful, and the focus of any pro-diversity criticism of Hollywood should be on this aspect rather than current or recent output. Decent roles for women and minorities will not be found by simply criticising them with things such as the Bechdel Test, they must come from producing quality characters and storylines that revolve around those people, and this emanates from the screenwriting process.

If the diversity-infused megafranchise movies make money, the acceptance of a screenplay about women and minorities will be much easier in the Hollywood system, and therefore the future of diversity in Hollywood blockbusters has been democratised. The studios have found a way to make massive movies about something other than white men, with little financial risk, and are pumping these movies with every marketing resource used for traditional blockbusters. The question of whether this continues or not is solely down to the success of these films, and of shows such as Jessica Jones, and not in analysing and complaining about what went before. If you want diversity in big movies, go see Captain Marvel, Black Panther, Cyborg, Wonder Woman and Rogue One when they are released, and hope that they are all good. Hollywood is a business that has no obligation but to make passable movies that they hope will make money, so there is absolutely no point in complaining about them in the hope they will one day see sense and enforce equal opportunities and affirmative action. They owe us nothing, but at least with the megafranchises they can explore whether or not they should listen to what the pro-diversity critics are saying. They have found a way to do it that suits everybody, and what happens next is up to the viewing public.

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Just Passing Through

Zero to three times a week, for the past three years, I have been going to the same gym, located a mere three hundred metres from my apartment in Vienna’s 5TH District. I would describe it as the Ryanair version of what a gym would be: it’s cheap, it’s basic, it’s bright, it’s loud, and they try and sell you stuff at every opportunity. It’s cheap and bad enough that you don’t feel you have to go every day in order to get full value out of the subscription you pay every month. It’s a trashy place, and like Ryanair, attracts a broad clientele: on more than one occasion, I have not been able to enter the men’s changing rooms because there are other men taking selfies of themselves in the wall-length mirror that is positioned at the door. These incidents got to me so much that early in my relationship with this gym, I decided I wouldn’t go near the changing room at all, and just come straight from my apartment already changed, and afterwards go straight back and have a shower at home. This worked pretty well, apart from every now and again I would get some hassle from the reception staff for wearing ‘street shoes’ in the gym: apparently this gym required people to keep a special pair of €100 trainers just for use on their hallowed ground and should never touch the dirty ground outside their walls. These exchanges always went the same way: I would say I didn’t know about this rule, they would say I was ok for today but that I should remember next time, then I would apologetically agree, and we would part ways. This would happen every few months, exactly the same way, for over two years.

The reason I just would not abide by the rule was mostly driven by my own comfort, but also because I knew I would get away with it. The thing was, there never was a next time for any of the reception staff. I don’t know what kind of crazy contracts my gym gave to their employees, but every time I went in, there were two different people behind the reception. It was like they had a constant stream of young, smiling, body-obsessed people in the staff area, ready to throw on a uniform and send out to the general public to give advice on what colour Gatorade to drink on leg day. I really could not count how many of these clones I have seen on reception duty during my time at the gym, so if one of them tells me something that relates to something I have to do at a future time, I will always agree, and thank them for the advice, safe in the knowledge that we would never see each other again, and that my blatant rule-breaking could continue indefinitely.

About six months ago, something changed, as three visits to the gym in a row, I noticed the same guy working at reception each time. He was exactly the same as all the other identikit gym receptionists, but differed only in his consistency in the position, and this fact made a big difference. The next time I went to the gym, he was there, and to my horror he told me I had to bring a change of shoes next time. I agreed, apologised, and knew the game was up: from that day on, I have been bringing an extra pair of trainers to the gym, which requires a trip to the locker room, and all the selfie watching that this entails.

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So, all it took for me to respect the rules of that gym was the existence of a staff member that was more than just a nameless clone in the correct uniform. Now, I don’t know what kind of contract these receptionist workers were on, but by the ease of their entry and exit to and from the reception counter, I would imagine it is quite similar to other service industries like bars, restaurants and cinemas. These establishments don’t want permanent staff, they want a constant supply of low-paid workers, who can move on just as quickly as they arrive. They are jobs that both employees and employers treat as transient jobs, just something to get money on the side while striving to become something else. When someone says she is a waitress, often the next line is someone (or the person themselves) talking about what it is she really wants to do. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with being a waitress, and it can be a surprisingly high-paid job. No, the main black mark against these service jobs is that they don’t really fit into the constantly rising career arc narrative that we are sold in this modern, consumerist, self-actualisation-obsessed society. Professional bar tenders, waiters, and even gym receptionists are hard to come by these days, and if there are any out there, they might find themselves having to explain their reasoning behind the career choice every time they meet someone new (unless of course, they own the establishment they work in). It’s one of the reasons why, even in a restaurant or bar you frequent constantly, you will not be surprised to see new faces behind the bar, or taking your order. These service jobs are full of people just passing through, on their way somewhere else, and employers are more-than-happy to abide by this view as it translates to lower wages and the absence of full-time employment contracts and benefits. There is skill and some kind of craft to all these jobs, yet their labour markets have allowed this to be sacrificed in order to create an extremely flexible labour force for the employer and the illusion of freedom for the employee.

This is something I have also seen slowly creep into the labour markets of higher-skilled jobs. On one side, there is the glorification of the freedom of freelance or contract work, but also there are constant articles in the media proclaiming that people nowadays switch jobs more than at any time in history, and this is portrayed as a good thing. The one common thread going through those points is that the value of tenure (staying at one company for a long time) is being undermined, and not only that: companies don’t want to hire you, they just want you to work for them. Freelancing is sold as the personification of freedom, a state of being where a professional chooses his/her projects, and performs them on his/her time. This is being done for a company that would otherwise have to hire someone full-time in a secure job, but now because of freelance aggregation sites such as Upwork they can simply define a project, throw it into the platform, and simply accept the lowest bidder for the project. The freelancer may be free, but is also earning less money, and has none of the security or benefits of a full-time job. The benefits of all of this seem stacked squarely in the favour of the employer.

I’m writing about this now because it does seem to be the future of employment: I wrote about Amazon a few months ago, about how they really just want people to work for them for a year until each employee burns out, and is then replaced. Labour markets are in an interesting place right now, as any employer with a bit of brains will try and outsource certain projects to desperate freelancers hungry for work rather than expanding the workforce. Especially in European countries, where employment protection legislation is strong, no company wants to hire long-term, as they are waiting a few years to see if they can get away with outsourcing/automating/contracting away all of their full-time employment commitments.  The value of tenure, of an employee staying with a company for a number of years, has been completely devalued in the modern labour market, as employers simply wish people to come in, do some work for them, and hopefully be replaced by somebody (or something) that is more (cost) efficient.

That’s not to say that companies themselves do not lose something from this devaluation of the value of long-term employment relationships. In fact, a company I worked for had an identity crisis on just this issue. The problem they had was that they were in the business of providing expert opinion and analysis, yet the turnover of staff was so great that not many of these ‘experts’ had been in place for more than a year. What was worse was that the company also exclusively hired employees early in their careers, so as to pay lower wages. In order to hide this, all employees were forbidden from posting on LinkedIn that they even worked for the company, in case any potential clients could do a quick search and find that the expert opinion they paid for would be provided by people in the job for only a few months. My employers at this time actively encouraged a work environment focused on using the company as a platform to launch a career elsewhere, yet they were embarrassed to reveal this to their clients, as it devalued the actual work produced by the company. Just like my gym down the road, lack of trustworthiness emanates from the lack of a consistent workforce. Companies don’t want employees, they just want people to do work for them. Yet these companies themselves probably would not trust or respect a company with a similarly low-tenured workforce. Most people who work in the private sector reading this will be affected by how this contradiction is resolved over the next decade.